Looking for some of the best Mexican food you’ll find north of the border? Considering the fact that California was once part of Mexico, it’s not surprising that Mexican food throughout the state is plentiful. In San Francisco, where the ratio of restaurants to square miles in a U.S. city is surpassed only by New York, you’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to authentic Mexican food. Whether you’re after a quick burrito at a neighborhood taqueria, or a sit-down dinner at a more upscale venue, here’s a guide to the best Mexican choices the city has to offer.
Unsurprisingly, the widest choice of taquerias can found in the Mission, San Francisco’s Latin Quarter. Named after the Mission Delores that was built by Spanish settlers in the late 18th Century, the neighborhood today is an eclectic mix of produce markets, thrift stores, dive bars and restaurants. In the 1950s, Mexican immigrants began settling here, bringing with them their local food traditions that are evident in the throngs of taquerias and burrito houses that line the streets today.
First up on Mission Street between 24th and 25th Street is La Taqueria. Although priced slightly higher than other taquerias nearby, you’ll be getting high quality meat, organic ingredients, as well as fresh salsa and guacamole that are famous in their own right. This is also one of the few places in the city where you can get crispy tacos, where a deep-fried tortilla is wrapped in a regular tortilla to give it extra crunch. (Although it’s not on the menu, order your tacos "dorado" style for extra crispiness). One downside is it only stays open until 9pm, so if you’re craving a late night food fix, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
One option is El Farolito, which stays open until 3am on weeknights and 4am on weekends. Like La Taqueria, El Farolito is informal and accepts cash only. Although the tacos and enchiladas are top notch, it’s their tightly rolled, gargantuan burritos for which they are famous, and which many people consider to be the best in the city.
Pancho Villa on Mission and 16th Streets also offers excellent burritos, as well as a full salsa bar if you’re looking for a lively nighttime atmosphere. If you’re not hungry enough for their huge regular-sized burritos, order the baby burrito: although it’s slightly smaller, it’s still more than enough for an average appetite. Food here is fast and consistently fresh, and there are good vegetarian options too such as the range of veggie burritos, or the garlic mushroom quesadilla. Pancho Villa’s popularity is also due to its convenient location right outside the BART station and a stone’s throw from the slew of trendy dive bars on 16th Street.
If you’re looking for more than a quick bite, a good option for a sit-down meal is at Puerto Alegre on Valencia and 16th Street. The restaurant’s popularity and no-reservation policy for parties under six means it gets crowded quickly, so get there early if you wanted to be seated right away. Puerto Alegre is a great option for larger groups, since they offer bargain-priced combo plates and margarita pitchers which are arguably even more famous than their food. If you’re lucky, you’ll be serenaded by a wandering Mariachi band before they continue on down Valencia.
Outside of the Mission, Mexican restaurants tend to be more upscale. One example is Nick’s Crispy Tacos in Russian Hill, which shares seating space with the Rouge nightclub in order to save on rental space. Because of this quirky arrangement, you can enjoy crispy fish tacos (order them "Nick’s way" for added cheese and guacamole) while seated in velvet booths with chandeliers overhead. If you go on Tuesdays, enjoy Happy Hour until 9pm, and tacos are $2 each – you’ll be hard pressed to find a better deal than that in the area.
Even further up the yuppie scale is Mamacita, situated in the heart of the marina on Chestnut and Divisadero. More of a restaurant than a no-frills taqueria, you’ll forego some value for money in order to rub shoulders with the beautiful marina crowd in a sophisticated setting. Even so, authentic Mexican dishes with innovative twists like the enchiladas de calabaza and shrimp tacos with mango chutney are well worth the higher prices. Traditional cocktails are given an original spin in creations like the guava mojito and pomegranate martini, but you also can’t go wrong with the standard Mamacita margarita made from freshly-squeezed lime juice and 100% Agave tequila.
What and Where:
La Taqueria (2889 Mission St, 415-285-7117
El Farolito (2777 Mission St, 415-826-4870)
Pancho Villa Taqueria (3071 16th St, 415-864-8840)
Puerto Alegre (546 Valencia St, 415-255-8201)
Nick’s Crispy Tacos (1500 Broadway, 415-409-8226)
Mamacita (2317 Chestnut St, 415-346-8494)
Catherine Parker is a South African freelance food and travel writer based in the Bay Area. She moved to San Francisco from London in 2006.